The SAID principle – ‘specific adaptations to imposed demands’ – is undoubtedly a universal and unyielding rule of training, and human biology as a whole.
We improve at that which we practice. If you lift a load of heavy weights on a consistent enough basis, a broad range of physiological and neurological adaptations take place in your body – increased muscle fibre recruitment, increased metabolic function, increased skeletal muscle mass, to name a few – and over time, you become better at lifting heavy weights.
In a traditional sense, there’s really no getting around this specificity requirement for our training; hence why it is uncommon to see elite marathoners working on their maximum deadlift in the gym. The chronic physical adaptations in the body required to run a fast marathon time could not be more different than those required to heave three hundred kilograms from the ground.
Therefore, when employing alternative forms of exercise in our training to provide respite or variety (cross-training), we are historically encouraged to maintain a level of specificity in our actions. The cross training may be a completely different activity than our usual chosen sport, but the underlying energy systems and demands on the body remain relatively constant.
This is pretty well Fitness Training 101 material.
However, it can be argued – and has been demonstrated, both academically and anecdotally – that this interpretation of the principle is limited, and perhaps is far too definitive than it should be.
I had this exact conversation with a friend and now-retired elite Australian triathlete, who was baffled by my brazen and perhaps ill-informed choice to train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu consistently in the lead up to my first one hundred mile ultramarathon attempt.
Mixing the two vastly differing disciplines can indeed seem conflicting and counterintuitive at a glance, as outlined earlier, and as pointed out by my friend. After all – what exactly am I asking my body to adapt to, and why am I sending it such mixed signals? Do I want to adapt to be better suited for fighting in short, intense anaerobic efforts, or to be able to aerobically turn my tired legs over, mile after long mile?
I’ll completely accept that the physiological requirements of the two, when applied so literally, are not in harmony. Distance running favours high levels of muscular endurance, and a strong cardiac and pulmonary output at low effort levels – while the more intense Brazilian Jiu Jitsu calls for muscular strength and power, and an ability to function predominantly anaerobically.
But if you apply an only slightly wider interpretation of the SAID principle in training, and look at some of the perhaps more intangible elements of human performance, the choice to train both is perhaps not quite so brazen.
For one, my foray into Jiu Jitsu exposed me to constant, maximal intensity efforts over continuous hours. There was sweat and blood, and bittersweet moments of total bodily exhaustion. It taught me calmness under pressure (while an opponent is trying their best to choke you unconscious) a genuine tolerance for mild to severe discomfort, and a degree of fearlessness matched with deep humility and respect for limitations. It taught me to find reserves of energy when I thought I had reached my maximum output. It’s a pursuit in which you are constantly reminded of the ‘bigger fish’ that surround you, and are forced to make peace with that fact, put your head down and seek improvement. These are all useful tools to have in an ultramarathon running toolbox.
I’ve never experienced a more tangible and real feeling of ‘the grind’, a word thrown around like so much confetti in the realms of fitness training, than when sparring Jiu Jitsu. What we are actually referring to when we talk of ‘the grind’ is the notion of ‘work capacity’ – the amount of physical exertion that we can both perform and positively adapt to. My work capacity, my ability to function continuously under duress and fatigue, improved dramatically in my year of counter-intuitive training – and I remained injury free, healthy and motivated to learn.
Can it not be argued that the hours spent in the martial arts gym helped me to build and polish skills that actually translate wonderfully to the world of endurance sports, despite the fact that they share select few physiological requirements? Did the work capacity that I built in Jiu Jitsu not spill over into my long distance running ability?
Endurance athlete, and personal hero of mine, Ross Edgley would undoubtedly agree – serving as a testament to the body’s ability to adapt to multiple fitness components at the one time in his 2016 running of a marathon distance whilst pulling a 1400 kilogram Mini Cooper. The ‘freakish’ event highlighted Ross’ capacity for both strength and stamina, which he developed through building an absurdly high work capacity. Ross is famed for his ability and willingness to take on any challenge at seemingly any time, no matter the discipline; and as a result, has become one of the most rounded and high-performing athletes walking the planet today.
It is hugely important that we don’t write people like Ross off as freakish, but rather dissect and analyse how they became the way that they are. Ross didn’t emerge from the womb with the capacity to swim two thousand miles around the English coastline, or rope climb the height of Everest in eighteen hours (all things that he has achieved) – he developed it slowly and meticulously over time with varied yet focused training.
I suppose the take-away from this post is to not be continuously caught up in the finer points of fitness training, and to challenge and question traditional ways of thinking about our abilities. While we should indeed all learn more about existing knowledge and research in the fields of physiology and psychology, we can also benefit from being more liberal and broad in our application of said knowledge. I see a lot of athletes that I know become so obsessive and confined with their approaches to their own training, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that it may not be always necessary. It can limit the ‘wholeness’ and overall ability to perform a range of physical tasks, can limit training variety and interest, and can crucially withhold valuable skills and lessons that can unexpectedly be added to the repertoire of our pursuit in focus.
A common explanation I offered in the last year of my training was that “running an ultramarathon is hard, and so I’m just training to do hard things.” It sounds simplistic and poorly informed, but there is a mounting body of evidence that suggests that we may have been unnecessarily deconstructive and limiting in our approaches to training in the past. I lifted heavier weights, I rock climbed, I fought and swam, and ran a load of miles on the trails. My capacity for handling discomfort and fatigue increased. And I had the best athletic performances of my life, to date.
It’s important that we remember that the body doesn’t differentiate hugely between a carefully tracked and recorded track workout at the Australian Institute of Sport, or two hours of star-jumps on the spot in a hotel room at 2:00AM – it merely responds and adapts to stress and stimuli.
We don’t always need to over complicate it.